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Victory wrapped in star-spangled banner

By Brendon O'Connor - posted Tuesday, 16 November 2004

It is tempting to see George W. Bush's re-election as a victory delivered by the true believers. Christian conservative voters and strong concerns about moral issues, according to the latest polls, were central to Bush's win.

In the crucial state of Ohio - which effectively decided who the next president was, and where gay marriage is banned - there was a referendum item on the ballot to further ban same-sex civil unions, which was passed with 62 per cent support. Such referendum issues helped Bush's Republican Party attract record numbers of evangelical Christians to the polling booths and helped focus the election on issues that advantaged candidate Bush.

John Kerry's biggest advantage this election was supposed to be high voter participation. A turnout of about 60 per cent should have guaranteed a Kerry victory, according to many so-called experts.


Their predictions were based on the theory that the more people who turn out to vote, the better the result would be for the Democrats. This understanding is premised on evidence that voting rates are low among minorities, poor people and younger Americans - all of whom are more likely to vote Democrat. The majority of new voters from these categories did support Kerry: But Bush also had a reserve army of Christian voters newly marshalled since his 2000 victory. Bush also was the more popular presidential candidate among elderly and wealthy voters.

Bush's tax cuts to those earning more than $US200,000 might have smacked of economic elitism in other societies, but in America the politics of aspirationalism should never be underestimated. A recent study reported 19 per cent of Americans claim to be part of the richest 1 per cent of the population, and a further 20 per cent believe they will enter that 1 per cent in their lifetimes. Furthermore, less than 1 per cent of Americans support raising taxes to improve public services.

Bush also received the majority of votes from those concerned about terrorism and security but, at the same time, received little backing from voters who saw Iraq as a big political issue. This is seemingly contradictory, until one realises that although many Americans are worried about homeland security, they are not particularly concerned about what happens beyond their own borders, reflecting the long-standing insularity of US nationalism.

Since September 11, 2001, US nationalism has added “victimhood” to its armoury. Unlike nationalism in Australia or many parts of Europe, US nationalism has never relied heavily on moments of defeat such as Gallipoli to stir feelings of national pride. Rather it has been based on perceived “exceptionalism” and superiority. After September 11, the American victim in a hostile world became part of Bush's rhetoric.

Bush's campaign was fundamentally about patriotism and nationalism, and being considered the more patriotic defender of America was a tremendous advantage to him as a candidate. Ronald Reagan was a past master of this, to the point where attacks on Reagan were criticised as attacks on American values. For political opponents this is a no-win situation.

Bush has said the press tends to "misunderestimate" him: Reagan was similarly written off by many as a simpleton. But when such candidates keep winning elections, the blame often shifts to the voters.


Pundits will talk confidently about the signals voters have sent with their re-election of Bush. But the truth is political analysis is an art, not a science. Talking about the voting intent of millions of people is always part guesswork, particularly given that the majority of them are only vaguely interested in politics. Aristotle famously posited that man is a political animal. This would seem to overstate things somewhat. In fact, humans would seem more correctly to be social animals.

As Robert Putman has written, "Most men are not political animals. The world of public affairs is not their world. Most men are not interested in politics. Most do not participate in politics".

It is easy to mistake the passions of Bush and Kerry loyalists at rallies and the hyperbole of journalists on some American television stations for a democratic maelstrom in the US. But this picture only represents the tip of the political iceberg: the vast majority is underwater, politically speaking.

Recent studies contend that the depth of division between people in America is often exaggerated for journalistic effect. These sceptical voices argue that talk of a "cultural war" between Christian conservatives and more secular Americans may be true within elite politics, but that this is less true among the public.

Politics for many Americans, like Australians, is an unsavoury activity that one largely avoids unless drawn into it by necessity. However, as Plato argued long ago, a populace that pays too little attention to politics ends up being ruled by its lessers.

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First published in The Courier-Mail November 6, 2004.

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About the Author

Brendon O'Connor is an Associate Professor in the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney and is the 2008 Australia Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington DC. He is the editor of seven books on anti-Americanism and has also published articles and books on American welfare policy, presidential politics, US foreign policy, and Australian-American relations.

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